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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 7)

All News 07:01 January 07, 2021

Iran's seizure of tanker
Tehran should release ship, crew immediately

The Moon Jae-in administration should make all-out diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to release a South Korean oil tanker and its crew seized by the Islamic republic's military near the Strait of Hormuz, Monday. It also needs to strengthen cooperation with the international community to solve the hostage situation as soon as possible.

Iran, however, denied Tuesday that it was holding the tanker and 20 crewmembers, including five Koreans and 11 Burmese, as hostage. It said that the seizure was made as the tanker, the MT Hankuk Chemi, had caused maritime environmental pollution. Iran's government spokesman Ali Rabier criticized South Korea for having taken $7 billion in Iranian funds hostage on baseless grounds. Iran said the seizure was a "technical problem" related to sea pollution.

The government is ready to take legal steps against the seizure as there is no evidence of the ship leaking any harmful chemicals into the sea. "We will look into the authenticity of Iran's allegations regarding environmental pollution in accordance with related international law," the foreign ministry said in a report to the National Assembly, Wednesday.

Yet Iran maintained that the tanker carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol had repeatedly violated environment rules and that the crew will be subject to judicial measures. The spokesman said the tanker issue was totally a technical one, urging the Korean government to approach the matter rationally and responsibly. Iran's stance could bode ill for possible negotiations between Seoul and Tehran over the issue.

But the tanker's operator, Taikun Shipping Co., refuted Iran's claims. "If it really was marine pollution, as they say, the coastguard was supposed to approach the ship first. Instead armed soldiers approached the crew and said they needed to be questioned," the operator was quoted as saying.

Some experts said the seizure was linked to Iran's demand for the release of its funds held by two Korean banks ― the Industrial Bank of Korea and Woori Bank ― which have been frozen under the U.S.-led economic sanctions on Iran.

The two banks opened the accounts in 2010 in the name of Iran's central bank to facilitate imports of Iranian oil and exports of Korean products to Iran. But the accounts were frozen in 2018 after the U.S. re-imposed sanctions on Iranian banks. Iran has been repeatedly demanding the release of its frozen funds.

South Korea and Iran have been discussing ways for Iran to use the funds to purchase vaccines for COVID-19. Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun is scheduled to visit Tehran, Sunday, to discuss the issue. In this vein, it is improper for Iran to blame Korea.

Against this backdrop, Iran's seizure of the tanker caught the foreign ministry off guard. We urge the Iranian government to release the ship and its crew immediately in accordance with humanitarian principles. Seoul conveyed its firm stance by calling in Iranian Ambassador to Korea Saeed Badamchi Shabestari. The government should take all possible measures to secure the safety of the crew and find an appropriate solution as soon as possible.

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